Bradley Given Mixed Assessment as Leader
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 25, 1999; Page A1
The central claim of Bill Bradley's presidential bid is that he will "confront tough challenges," that he will be "a president with the willingness to take risks and confront big issues."
Maybe, say some of those who worked closely with him during his 18-year career in the Senate. But many remember the legislator as a muted, mixed portrait, not a man drawn in bold strokes. There were moments when Bradley surprised colleagues by persistently fighting for a bill or a cause with a determination to win. At other times, the New Jersey senator remained in the shadows, brushing off pressure to become something more than one vote in 100.
Just over a decade ago, Bradley deeply disappointed leaders of the environmental movement. After first agreeing to lead the fight against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Bradley "kind of disappeared," a key environmentalist recalled. "The issue never caught fire with him. We were stuck."
But as he wound up his third term in the Senate in 1996, Bradley emerged as a hero to environmentalists. They again faced a major threat: Utah's two Republican senators wanted to open up more than 1 million acres of state land to mining, grazing and other uses. This time, Bradley came forward, leading a filibuster against the measure. "He stopped it," said Mike Matz, executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "He was huge."
These two episodes sum up Bradley as a senator: If an issue caught him in the right mood and grabbed his intellect and imagination, he ran with it. But if an issue bored him, he walked on by. Now, as he emerges as the only Democrat to challenge Vice President Gore for the party's nomination, that quality raises questions about his stature as a national leader.
"He is capable of more courage than he has displayed. He keeps himself under wraps, knows what is the right thing to do, but he doesn't always go full throttle," said consumer activist Ralph Nader. "There is a difference between a good senator with a good voting record, and a transforming leader. I think it's a personality thing."
The issues that energized Bradley included Third World debt problems, Russian political crises, the 1986 tax reform bill, enforcement of child support obligations and American race relations.
"Bradley thinks something through, gets a sense of what the objective should be, and once he has formed that in his own mind, he is a laser in terms of staying locked on target," said Maureen S. Steinbruner, president of the Center for National Policy. "Bradley is smart and he's good to deal with as long as you are going after the same objective."
The heart of Bradley's assertion that he will step into the battle while others are cautious is the topic of race. The former Knicks basketball star, a white man in an overwhelmingly black universe, laid claim to the issue of race in a series of Senate speeches given in the early 1990s, during the height of Republican assaults on affirmative action and the tension and violence surrounding the Rodney King case in Los Angeles.
"In politics for the last 25 years, silence or distortion has shaped the issue of race and urban America," Bradley told the Senate in March 1992. "Republicans have played the race card in a divisive way to get votes -- remember Willie Horton -- and Democrats have suffocated discussion of self-destructive behavior among the minority population in a cloak of silence and denial. The result is that yet another generation has been lost."
But even in this area, there are sharp differences in the assessment of Bradley.
"I remember those exquisite speeches, both watching on C-SPAN and reading after. I was struck then and it's a thought that remains with me: Here is a man who understands to his very core the issues of racism in America. He got it," said Judith L. Lichtman, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. "At a time when the world was screaming out for white men in leadership positions to have courage to provide that leadership and speak out about racism, he was the only one who would do it."
Will Marshall, president of the Democratic Leadership Council's Progressive Policy Institute, is far less admiring: "Mr. Bradley has yet to really offer anything bold or innovative, and in fact has been quite orthodox in his views on the subject, lacking a real action agenda. Bradley would never stray beyond the safe, liberal consensus on race. . . . That just seems to take us back to the old polarity of white guilt and black victimization."
In two areas, Bradley won the plaudits of Democrats and liberals. One was his advocacy of the 1986 tax reform act that eliminated many breaks or loopholes and substantially lowered rates. The other was his sponsorship of Senate Finance Committee amendments benefiting women and children.
"Things [tax loopholes] we absolutely thought were sacred cows just fell by the wayside," said David Brockway, the Joint Committee on Taxation's former chief of staff who helped guide the 1986 tax bill through Congress. "There were any number of people who had strong roles, but it was Bradley more than anyone else I would have to give credit to."
Leaders of women's advocacy groups credit Bradley with sponsoring and passing legislation strengthening procedures for collecting child support, protecting the child care tax credit, equalizing tax burdens on single mothers and extending Medicaid coverage of poor women and children. "He would usually be our champion," said Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center. "The key thing is having somebody who is going to be the child support person. He was that guy."
In this stage of the contest between Bradley and Gore, the widespread assumption is that their voting records as senators were similar, falling along ideologically centrist, fiscally moderate lines. In fact, Bradley was the more liberal of the two on host of issues -- reflecting either his philosophy or differences between the constituencies of Bradley's New Jersey and Gore's Tennessee.
On military and space spending, Bradley opposed and Gore supported MX missile production, larger amounts for space-based antimissile defenses, the B-2 bomber and use of military force in Iraq.
A similar pattern emerged on a number of social and domestic issues, with Bradley opposing a number of proposals backed by Gore, including some restrictive welfare reforms, tougher overall spending constraints and cuts in such programs as Amtrak, mass transit and urban development grants.
On a minority of votes, the pattern reversed itself, with Bradley taking what were generally construed as more conservative positions. For instance, Bradley supported and Gore opposed a school voucher demonstration program and some death penalty proposals.
Throughout his Senate career, Bradley was an outsider, distant from most of his colleagues and from his party. This stance, combined with his intellectual approach to issues, produced two very different reactions among fellow senators, staff and party loyalists.
One faction privately viewed him not only as aloof, but as a person who sees himself as superior to colleagues and to politics generally.
"He was in the Senate for 18 years and only one senator [Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.)] has endorsed him. I think that speaks volumes," said a staff aide who dealt with Bradley over the years.
A Senate Democratic operative, who is equally unenthusiastic about Gore, said: "The thing about Senator Bradley was he was always a person with unfulfilled promise. The civil rights issue I remember . . . was when the Republicans were using race as a wedge issue and the Democrats were desperate for a national leader, someone other than the stock liberals, to rebut this garbage they were throwing at us. Not only did he not step forward, soon afterward he announced his retirement and said a plague on both your houses [parties].
"He was a jump shooter, from 20 feet out, and to legislate you've got to get under the boards, make compromises, deal with lobbyists, things that are tough and ugly. Whenever it got to that point, he wouldn't be there."
But to some Democrats in the Senate and in New Jersey, Bradley's antipathy toward backslapping politics and his intellectual demeanor were strengths.
"He elevated the Senate, he lifted the stature of the Senate. You knew you were dealing with someone of substance who wasn't just operating off an opinion poll," said Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), another loner.
Former Senate Finance Committee chairman Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), who worked with Bradley on the 1986 tax bill, said, "I needed his intellect and the respect he had, and he needed the coalitions that I had."
Back in New Jersey, Democrats saw Bradley as the "statesman" and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D) as the man who took care of the state. "We had Lautenberg bringing home the bacon and Bradley who gave us a sense of pride -- here is a fellow who can talk about cosmic issues," said former governor James Florio.
Those divergent opinions followed Bradley into retirement after he launched an unusual broadside at his Democratic colleagues.
"Democrats distrust the market, preach government as the answer to our problems and prefer the bureaucrat they know to the consumer they can't control," Bradley said then. "Democrats have become too enamored of the possibility of a centralized federal bureaucracy to solve very complex human problems."
"He was somewhat tainted from his retirement speech," said Steve Damico, former executive director of the New Jersey Democratic Party. "There was a concern that he not only retired from the Senate, but there were some people in the party who felt he turned his back on the party as well."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company